Watoga Trail Report

Jim Bullard taking measurements on one of two hemlocks struck by lightning. Photo Ken Springer

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The lowdown on lightning and the return of a stolen sign

Terror quite literally struck the Bullard family a few weeks ago when they were watching TV in their bedroom about nine o’clock one evening. The silence of the night was shattered by a flash that lit up their yard and bedroom like the midday sun.

This was immediately followed by the shock waves of an explosion so powerful they felt it pass through their bodies. Their neighbors, who live an even a greater distance from the explosion, reported the very same experience.

After the initial shock wore off, Jim and Beth Bullard began checking the rooms of their home – including the attic – thinking that lightning had struck the house or that a large hemlock, already listing precariously toward their house, had crashed through the roof. But all was well, there was no damage. Despite their bewilderment, they went to bed.

The previous night’s terror was replaced by curiosity in the morning light. After a quick cup of coffee, they set out from their home near Seneca State Forest intent on finding out what had caused the disturbance of the previous night. They checked all around the house and the various outbuildings but failed to turn up anything that could be remotely associated with an explosion.

It was only when they walked down their drive to the mailbox later in the morning that they solved the mystery. Several hundred feet from the house, and in a stand of mostly hemlock trees, was a scene that filled them with awe. They stared at two bare truncated snags about 50 feet apart and a good 150 feet into the woods from their drive.

The two shredded snags, totally stripped of bark, are each about 20 feet high. Judging from the height of the surrounding trees, the two affected trees, being greater in girth, must have been about 90-to-100 feet tall. That means that some 80-foot of live hemlock was sheared from its base and a large portion was blown to bits by a direct and powerful lightning strike. 

Large pieces of the shattered trees were found as far away as 130 feet, and 20-foot slivers of the trunk were found embedded in the ground like javelins. How can this be?

Lightning generates approximately five times the heat of the Sun’s surface, a blistering 53,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it branched and struck those trees it was a one-to-two-inch diameter shaft of searing plasma driven by more than a 100,000 volts.

Upon entering the tree, it made its way to ground and instantly vaporized every drop of liquid contained within the tree. The instantaneous expansion of the gas blew fragments of the trunk in all directions. Any animal or human in the vicinity of the exploding trees risked being shish-kabobed.

The victims of a lightning strike on this occasion were trees, but it could have just as easily been a house, barn or even a human. Over the last 20 years, the U.S. has experienced an average of 51 deaths per year from lightning strikes.

The mortality rate from being struck by lightning is only about 10 percent, so most people struck by lightning survive, although they sometimes suffer long-term injuries. Looking at that hemlock tree in the photo, one must be amazed that more than two-thirds of people survive a lightning strike with little or no injury.

Ranger Roy Sullivan, of Shenandoah National Park, was struck seven times by lightning during his career and was nicknamed the “Human Lightning Rod.” He survived to tell the tales and died in 1983 from a self-inflicted gunshot.

He apparently suffered no serious injuries from his encounters with lightning, but people began believing that he somehow attracted lightning. In interviews, he expressed a sense of deep sadness that friends and co-workers avoided him, particularly in outdoor settings, which is where a park ranger spends most of their time.

There is no hard science to back up the claim that certain individuals have a greater propensity than others for being struck by lightning.

However, there is an abundance of information from studies conducted over the last couple of decades on the science of lightning. Thanks to modern technology such as that used by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we have a pretty good understanding of how lightning works.

Despite the facts available to us about lightning and thunder, many myths and half-truths persist. In the interest of the safety of visitors to Watoga State Park and the many other outdoor attractions and pursuits in Pocahontas County, a future Watoga Trail Report will be devoted to the science and safety of lightning.

We will examine how lightning forms and explore the many mysterious aspects of lightning, like St. Elmo’s Fire and Ball Lightning. We will also bust some myths about lightning, such as “Lightning never strikes twice in the same place” and the ever-popular “Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.”

Well, I would bet our very own Laura Finch, who is out there hiking the length of the Allegheny Trail, knows how to minimize the hazards of lightning. If she finds herself in the vicinity of a lightning storm she will avoid water and all metallic objects – no leaning against fire towers.

If Laura is hiking with others she will make sure they spread out so that they are at least 20 feet apart. She will avoid open areas where she is the highest point around her. She will look for clumps of trees and shrubs of uniform height, crouching down with feet together. Laura is a wise and prepared hiker. Best wishes for an enjoyable and successful hike, Laura.

Now to late-breaking Watoga news:

The news traveled through the county faster than green grass through a goose – somebody ran off with the much-beloved historic entrance sign to Watoga State Park last week. Speculation about the identity of the culprit(s) and the motive ran rampant in our little village of Seebert – everybody had their own theory to be sure.

My pet theory is that it graces the wall of somebody’s man cave. I can just imagine some fellow coming home from a hard day’s work, pulling the tab on an ice-cold beer and sinking into the arms of that over-stuffed chair that his wife was planning to take to the dump back in March. Ah, the deep satisfaction of just looking at that sign! 

Having that great old sign all to himself is a lot like having a stolen Rembrandt; you can’t show it to too many people.  But you do have that singular satisfaction of knowing that no matter how bad your day went, that Watoga entrance sign is always there to remind you of the 12-pound brown trout you caught in 1993 in the Greenbrier River just a few yards away from the now bare signposts.

That stuffed trout would be right up there on the man cave wall with the Watoga sign if his wife hadn’t taken it to the dump some years ago.

Well, enough for letting my imagination run wild. The sign thief must have had a change of heart or maybe the pangs of guilt were a little too much, or perhaps his wife or parents made him take it back. (My imagination did not allow me to think that the thief was a woman, it’s just not the kind of thing a woman would do, but I’ve been wrong on one or two other occasions.)
Anyway, the sign did make its way home sometime before dawn on Saturday. It was removed to the maintenance shop where it will be repainted and placed back where it belongs.

So, to whoever saw fit to do the right thing, “Thanks for bringing it back. It means a lot to the community and the people who love Watoga State Park.” 

I hope you can find a suitable replacement sign for your man cave.

In closing this episode of the Watoga Trail Report it is my hope that everyone has had the opportunity to watch and enjoy the new Ken Burn’s documentary, Country Music. I alternately laughed, cried and tapped my feet through all 13 hours, 36 minutes, and three seconds of this wonderful production from PBS.

Ken Burns has West Virginia blood flowing through his veins.

His great-grandfather was from Hillsboro and his mother was from Clarksburg. He still has relatives in Lewisburg.

Personally, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket when it comes to singing, but if you hear someone whistling the Hank William’s tune “I’m so lonesome I could cry” out on the trails of Watoga State Park, that’d be me.

From the great trails of Watoga,
Ken Springer

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